As Christmas is almost upon us and the pantomime season soon in full flow, many theatrical productions will no doubt feature themes that owe much to Robert Louis Stevenson’s great adventure Treasure Island - along with such enduring quotes as’ Fifteen Men on a dead man’s chest…Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of Rum!’, ‘Shiver my timbers’,  or 'Avast, there!’.

Map of Robinson Crusoe's Island of Despair

Like several Victorian writers before, Robert Louis Stevenson’s vivid imagination fed on the stories that had thrilled his own youth, sea-faring tales such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, W H G Kingson’s Peter the Whaler, R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, and James Fenimore Cooper’s stories of ‘the wave’ rather than those of ‘the wood.’ He even admitted stealing a character from Edgar Allen Poe – in this case the hideous pointing skeleton from The Gold-Bug.

From The Gold-Bug, illustration by Herpin

And, like many writers before, Stevenson had been inspired by a child who featured strongly in his life – in this case his stepson. Treasure Island was first conceived in 1880 when the newly-married Stevenson returned to Scotland from his travels in America, along with his divorced American wife and her son Lloyd Osbourne – who afterwards described the time when the family were on holiday and –

‘… busy with a box of paints I happened to be tinting a map of an island I had drawn. Stevenson came in as I was finishing it, and with his affectionate interest in everything I was doing, leaned over my shoulder, and was soon elaborating the map and naming it. I shall never forget the thrill of Skeleton Island, Spyglass Hill, nor the heart-stirring climax of the three red crosses! And the greater climax still when he wrote down the words "Treasure Island" at the top right-hand corner! And he seemed to know so much about it too — the pirates, the buried treasure, the man who had been marooned on the island ..."Oh, for a story about it", I exclaimed.’

Oh, what a story it was! First serialised in magazines and then published as a book in 1883 for which Stevenson had drawn his own detailed map to illustrate the amoral world into which the boy Jim Hawkins was thrust. That map was the key to a world of blood-thirsty captains, one-legged pirates with parrots on their shoulders, or buried treasure on tropical islands and maps where 'X' marks the spot, where hoards of stolen doubloons might be found. 

Those images have since been imitated, often to the point of parody. But the original version still stands proud, for what differentiated Jim Hawkins from J M Barrie's Peter Pan - whose Captain Hook was surely derived from Stevenson's Captain Flint - was the fact that Stevenson did not idealise the state of childhood or shun the harsher aspects of life. Jim was a boy of  'real' flesh and blood,  his adventure bold and dangerous – his island a place where daydreams could turn into a living nightmare splattered with gore and blood. The essence of Treasure Island is something entirely masculine with no whiff of sugar or spice but as much Slugs and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails as any boy, or grittier girl, could bare to endure. As such Stevenson created what we might now call a 'coming of age' novel dealing with themes of lies and distrust, of alcoholism, gambling, violence and death.

Current day admirers of Jim’s Hawkins' adventures will recognise echoes from his time on Treasure Island in films such as The Pirates of the Caribbean, and the The Goonies. There have been various televised dramatisations. There have been several literary prequels and sequels and following his ten years as poet laureate Andrew Motion wrote Return to Treasure Island, in which Jim’s son, Jim Junior, is visited by Long John Silver’s daughter who persuades the boy to steal his father’s treasure map.

Thus a new adventure begins in which Motion, who claims to have never enjoyed a project so much, picks up various loose ends and does not shy away from the brutality of the original. 'I think Treasure Island is a book full of tension and really quite dark…people die – they get trampled to death by horses, Jim shoots Israel Hands on the mast and he falls into the sea. It is ‘bang’ and that’s that. My Jim is a little more introspective – he does brood on things a bit.’

'One more step, Mr Hands'

And, in the meantime, why not read the original. It really is a ripping good yarn.


  1. I'm excited about Andrew Motion's Return to Treasure Island. I'll be interested to see what he does with it and whether he does keep it as dark as the original, which I re-read in December before watching the most recent Sky adaptation. I think with all the subsequent pirate films especially, it's easy to forget how much Jim Hawkins has to go through in order to survive his "adventure". Treasure Island is pretty grim in places, but I love the book all the more for that, and the fact that it doesn't leave that aspect of piracy, and life at the time, out of the story.

  2. I read one slightly disappointing review the other day - but I try not to go too much by reviews these days...there have certainly been films that I've loved that reviewers have hated and vice versa, and I'm sure it's the same with books.